After many days, there is a break in the rain and I’m able to paint outside again. Now the rough dirt road is too wet to drive on and I must hike to the pond up the hill a half a mile with my paintings and easel and all my materials on my back or in my duffle bag. It takes me most of an hour to gather all of my equipment. As if heading out on a backpacking trip, I leave the shelter, predictability and control of the studio.
The muddy road and weight and distance change the activity. It seems more serious. I am being called to work harder but I also feel like I’m setting off to discover some new land. The logistics and hiking adds new texture and is a refreshing break in a pattern I hadn’t even noticed had become stale.
I arrive and set up while looking at my view. Everything looks darker and wet and bare, but otherwise much the same as last time. It is supposed to begin raining again in a few hours. To my surprise, I notice a feeling of disappointment come over me, as though I was supposed to be traveling to a new land only to find myself back where I started. Suddenly I feel fatigued by all the branches and the challenge of the task before me. I looked hard at this scene I know so well. I can’t say what I was looking for but it was something. I was looking deeper and deeper into what was before me.
Under my scrutiny, the view started opening like a fractal, every detail was full of details, within each world another world, filled with worlds. The details were proliferating. My “to do” list transforming into lists of “to do” lists, cascades of tiny tasks streaming before my eyes. The twigs and branches and grasses all looked very edgy, and splintered like a field of glass shards or a tangle of thin wires. It crossed my mind that I was being overwhelmed with information.
Then something remarkable, beautiful and totally unexpected happened.
The fog came in.
Fog. A blanket of silver water vapor, delivered like a gift. A great cool, soft, white bird spreading its wings before me. In a moment, this silent veil obscured almost all of the details I was studying. What remained were broad fuzzy shapes in gentle grey tones oscillating between warm and cool, between violet and yellow, and in the middle the floating ghost-like burnt-orange of the tree, glowing both above and in the water, with subtle vitality.
The beauty overwhelmed me. I never imagined this whole scene shrouded in fog, or what could happen when all the values become one value and the details are replaced by a few quiet shifts in temperature and color. I found myself staring at the view that I know so well, which was totally transformed in the best possible way. And this transformation came just when I was drowning in minutia. I felt of a rush of inspiration and a fresh desire to paint this new world.
The fog, bright and clean, arrived like some dramatic event that startles us out of our routine and reminds us of the big contours of our life, the ones that can be seen from a distance of decades. In one breath we can be set free from the swarm of small tasks and preoccupations. We can be called to look up from the coins we are counting and are astonished by the full moon or the setting sun or the beauty of our child.
The fog reminded me of what I love about landscape painting out of doors. It reminded me that I have big brushes. It reminded me that sometimes having more information is having less meaning, truth and essence. Looking harder does not always lead us to revelation, sometimes things have to be largly obscured before we can really see them.